Lumen Gentium's "Subsistit In" Revisited: The Catholic Church and Christian Unity after Vatican II

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ON JuLy 29, 2007 the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a series of Responses to Some Questions regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church. (1) Every question in this document involves the reception of the Second Vatican Council and afortiori the reception of Vatican II's ecclesiology. One key to understanding the CDF's document is the discussion surrounding the statement in Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium no. 8, where it is said that "haec ecclesia subsistit in ecclesia catholica." Among those concerned for ecumenical theology, this phrase is known and appreciated for its openness to acknowledge other Christian communities as churches containing elements of sanctification and truth, rendering them part of the one Church of Christ. The issue at stake now is clearly laid out in the CDF's answer to the second question, "What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?" The CDF states: "In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium 'subsistence' means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth." (2) Although the CDF later refers to the so-called elements of the Church, here it states that "the word 'subsists' can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone, precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe ... in the 'one' Church); and this 'one' Church subsists in the Catholic Church." This response, then, indicates the direction taken by the response to the third question: "Why was the expression 'subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word 'is'?" Answer: "The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church." The CDF's use of the phrase "full identity" (plenam identitatem) suggests it believes both that subsistit means est, and that one ought to read Lumen gentium in the latter sense. This answer has raised some debate within ecumenical circles, and Roman Catholic ecumenists such as Jared Wicks have attempted to explain the terminology. (3) Still, further investigation is in order. Below I trace the discussion back to its conciliar roots by first examining the context of the CDF document, then by scrutinizing the redaction history of the schema De ecclesia up to the subsistit phrase.


Lately, the domain of Vatican II studies--in particular among church historians--has become very complex. (4) In the postconciliar era, the study of the council (its documents, their genesis, the roles played by bishops, theologians, pressure groups, etc.) went through various phases qualified by an evolving general ecclesiastical context. Massimo Faggioli points out that there are two large periods to be distinguished in the domain of post-Vatican II studies. (5) Although one can see a reception of the council going on during Vatican II itself, I can largely subscribe to Faggioli's analysis. The first postconciliar period of reception, he argues, immediately proceeds from the council, covering the decades 1965 to 1985. From a bibliographical viewpoint this period features both chronicles (e.g., Xavier Rynne, Yves Congar, and Robert Rouquette) reporting on the council's four sessions and commentaries on the conciliar documents. The most famous example is the three-volume Das zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare. (6) Many monographs also appeared, most of them dedicated to one of the four conciliar constitutions. It is striking that most commentaries were authored by participants in the council. Particularly noteworthy for my purposes is Gerard Philips's acclaimed commentary and Charles Moeller's notes on Lumen gentium. (7)

The second period of reception runs from 1985 to 2000 and is characterized--mainly due to the historical distance and greater availability of primary sources--by the publication of mostly historiographical studies. …